Synod, Kingdom Work, and the Trinity Psalter Hymnal

From heaven O praise the Lord,
On high the Lord O praise!
All angels, praise accord!
Let all his hosts give praise!
Praise him on high,
Sun, moon and star,
Sun, moon and star,
You heavens afar
And cloudy sky!

It took 21 years to move from the beginning of the URCNA’s Psalter Hymnal project to the final publication of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. Twenty-one years—that’s long enough for a member of the Songbook Committee to bear, raise, and graduate a child.

tph1010As an interested URCNA member who followed the publication process for only eight of those 21 years, I have only a small portion of the sense of accomplishment and celebration that accompanies the new book. But it truly was a foretaste of heaven to be present for this year’s joint meeting of the URCNA Synod and the OPC General Assembly from June 11 to 15 in Wheaton, Illinois, where the opening prayer service began with the singing of Psalm 148A from the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. United Reformed and Orthodox Presbyterian brothers singing a setting from the Reformed Presbyterian tradition of psalmody—it was a moment of full hearts and sincere praise.

Since volunteering as organist at the URCNA’s Synod Nyack in 2012, I’d always hoped for the opportunity to attend another synod. I never expected that the chance would come through representing Geneva College in the display hall. This new role surprised me—just as much as it surprised a number of readers who expected to see me at the organ bench rather than at an exhibitor table. It was wonderful to be reunited with so many familiar faces.

As it turns out, the connection between Geneva College and the work of these Reformed church gatherings is more than coincidental. I’m grateful for the countless conversations with alumni, parents, and prospective students throughout the week that revealed Geneva’s role in providing Biblically faithful education to generations of Reformed believers. This college exemplifies the kind of kingdom work that we heard about in sessions describing the relationship of the URCNA and OPC: an established commitment to Reformed doctrine, a ministry focused on the central role of local churches, and a tangible effort to evangelize and disciple those under its care.

And at the heart of this ministry of education are the psalms—in chapel, in choir, in church services, in dorm rooms. To give just one example, I had to leave synod early to attend a wedding of two friends who graduated from Geneva. Neither of them hails from a Reformed or Presbyterian background. But they sang psalms during their ceremony—psalms they would have never learned to sing at another college. Geneva teaches its students to understand the psalms as songs of the spirit that instruct, convict and edify the saints. Its graduates carry that gift with them, not just into Reformed and Presbyterian churches, but into a wide variety of congregations and denominations. And they share that gift with new generations of believers.

The psalms are not only songs of the spirit; they are also battle cries for the church’s struggle against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. The 21st century witnesses increasing pressures upon the church, including societal changes that require careful statements like the URCNA’s new Affirmations Regarding Marriage. Even within our own walls there are disagreements, divisions and the pervasive presence of sin. The community of saints still suffers the effects of the Fall—and we need the psalms in order to cry out for God’s wisdom and mercy.

So we set ourselves to seek the welfare of Zion, as Psalm 122 teaches us. And we do so with a dual perspective: a local focus that commits us to living faithfully in particular congregations, and a kingdom perspective that lifts us above the landscape to see our gospel mission in grander scale. One of the particular joys of synod is getting a glimpse of that kingdom outlook—an outlook that includes special places like Geneva College and special events like the publication of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.

That dual perspective is an inspiration and a challenge in my own life. Having graduated from Geneva, I’m now halfway through a master’s degree in communication at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. In the coming months I’ll be deciding whether to pursue an academic career through a Ph.D. or to move on to a seminary track. A kingdom outlook reminds me that ministry can occur in front of chalkboards as well as behind pulpits. A local focus reminds me to pursue the primary vocation of a faithful servant in my day-to-day responsibilities. Meanwhile, I’ve transferred my membership to a local Reformed Presbyterian (RPCNA) congregation—not because I’ve become convinced of a cappella exclusive psalmody but because the nearest URCNA church is four hours away. My faith has already grown through my time among this godly group of saints.

I hope this dual perspective will shape the future of URC Psalmody as well. A few months ago I entertained the notion of shutting down this blog, with its news feed inactive and much of its information out of date. But I was surprised and encouraged to hear from so many of you at synod that the existing content on this site continues to be a blessing. Sincere thanks to each one of you for reading, commenting and participating as we continue to seek God’s glory through the singing of his Word.

Most likely, the updates on URC Psalmody will continue to be sparse. But while there are still psalms to learn and kingdom work to be done, we press on!

In his service,

–MRK

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Announcing “Psalms for the King” Winner!

The results of our first giveaway raffle featuring Psalms for the King are in, and George Van Popta of Hamilton, ON, is the winner! Rev. Van Popta, your CD will be in the mail shortly. Thank you to everyone who participated, and please remember that if you would like a copy of this CD, it is still available online from Crown & Covenant. It is a worthwhile addition to any psalm collection!

–MRK

Announcing “Psalms for the King” Giveaway

2014 Genevans CD Insert COVER frontOne of the most common questions I receive on this blog is from readers looking for good recordings of the psalms. The list of psalm-singing recordings available on the web is already quite large, including some enjoyable (though outdated) recordings of the blue Psalter Hymnal and entire websites devoted to Scottish metrical psalmody. Today I’m happy to announce a wonderful addition to that list with the online release of one of my favorite CD’s, Psalms for the King.

Psalms for the King was recorded by my college choir, The Genevans, during the season that included a three-week international tour in the Philippines and Malaysia (you can read about that tour here). A freshman at the time, I got to sing all of these pieces as well as accompany a solo psalm setting on the organ (Track 14, “The Lord is my Shepherd”).

With the exception of the organ piece, Psalms for the King is entirely a cappella. That’s not for principled reasons as much as for practical ones: when you’re visiting concert locations that require piling into jeepneys and hiking through jungles, you can’t always guarantee there will be a piano or organ at your destination. But if you thought a cappella singing represents a single musical style, think again. Psalms for the King bridges the worlds of congregational psalmody and sacred classical music, with everything from Bruckner’s spine-tingling Os justi (Psalm 37:30-31) to a jazzy version of Psalm 118 arranged for men’s chorus by our director.

A lot of college choirs choose repertoire that shows off their technical skills. And The Genevans certainly have the chops for difficult music, including Mendelssohn’s motet on Psalm 2 and a choral fugue on Psalm 150 by J.S. Bach. But when the choir sings simple tunes, they do so just as beautifully. Despite my appreciation for intricate choral counterpoint, some of my favorite tracks are the traditional CRIMOND setting of Psalm 23 and a setting of Psalm 16 by Dr. Bob Copeland.

A drawback of this recording is that a few selections are sung in different languages, so a casual listener might not immediately benefit from those particular psalm texts without consulting the liner notes. However, the second half of the disc more than compensates for this shortcoming. Overall Psalms for the King remains one of my favorite psalm albums to listen to—not just because of my emotional attachment to the choir, but because it captures some of the best of psalm-singing from a wide variety of times and places. Below is a sample track from the album, a new setting of Psalm 130 by Geneva College professor Dr. Byron Curtis.

Psalms for the King was released in early 2015, but the album wasn’t available online until very recently. Crown & Covenant, the publishing house of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, has just begun selling the CD’s on their website for $15.

Even better, I’ve obtained permission to hold a contest for a free copy of Psalms for the King on CD (the first of its kind on URC Psalmody!). Simply submit your information here, and the sixth person (in the US or Canada) to contact me will receive a free copy. I’ll even cover the postage!

Even if you don’t win the contest, consider getting yourself a copy of Psalms for the King. It will bring joy to your ears and your soul.

–MRK

Buy Psalms for the King (C&C) »

Enter the giveaway contest »

Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land

fergusonA week ago, I heard an extremely unusual commencement address. Although I’ve only graduated twice, I’m fairly familiar with the genre of commencement speeches: usually a motivational talk that congratulates students on surviving four years of high school or college while spurring them on to pursue their dreams. Even in a Christian context, a typical graduation speech might focus on discovering God’s grand plan for your life and serving him with your utmost potential.

My graduation ceremony featured Dr. Sinclair Ferguson as guest speaker. As soon as I saw the title of Dr. Ferguson’s address, I realized this speech was going to be different. It was entitled, “How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?” Yes, the text Dr. Ferguson had chosen to unfold for us in the last minutes of our college career was from one of the most abject laments of the Bible, Psalm 137.

Although a warm and engaging speaker, Dr. Ferguson was not interested in the personal hopes and dreams of us college graduates. His main question was this: “Has your education prepared you to sing the Lord’s song, the song of your Lord Jesus Christ, in the land in which you are being called to serve him?” Pointing us to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as four “college graduates” who sang the Lord’s song in a strange land, Dr. Ferguson enjoined the graduating class of 2017 to follow their examples.

These young men were able to remain strong in the face of opposition because they knew God’s sovereignty, they knew God’s truth, and they knew God’s presence. Their faith in God allowed them to sing. Their faith was tested in the fires of persecution and affliction—and not merely metaphorical fires.

Dr. Ferguson also pointed us to the example of David, the author of the beloved 23rd Psalm. David was not a cherubic shepherd boy when he wrote this psalm. He could speak about the valley of the shadow of death because he had been through it himself, numerous times.

Two thoughts pressed themselves upon me as I heard Dr. Ferguson’s words. First, the Psalms were written in real life. The author of Psalm 137 was not trying to tune into his “bluesy” side any more than the author of Psalm 23 was inspired by a Thomas Kinkade painting. No, the contents of the Psalter were written by real people suffering through real trials, and determined to seek the face of God nonetheless. As such, the psalms are for us. We ought not to shy away from the full spectrum of emotions and situations in the Psalter. Days that call for Psalm 137 will come, and when they do, we must have the courage to take this psalm and others upon our lips.

The second thought is that Dr. Ferguson’s message resonates especially at a place like Geneva College, where the psalms are regularly sung. Geneva has taught me to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, not just by training me to be a truthful communicator in a world of deceit, but actually by teaching me to sing the Lord’s songs. To cite just one example, Psalm 117 is sung at the end of every chapel service at Geneva. When it was announced as the closing song at Saturday’s commencement ceremony, the graduates stood unbidden, recognizing the gravity and joy of the occasion. By teaching the psalms, Geneva has given to me and others a spiritual vocabulary that we can turn to when we encounter those trials and temptations. For that I am exceedingly grateful.

A memorable commencement address to conclude a memorable college career. I go forth rejoicing, with Dr. Ferguson’s charge still resounding in my soul: “Go and sing the Lord’s song in what is becoming an increasingly strange land, and trust his power and trust his truth and trust his presence, and he will be with you to the end of your life, and then by his grace for all eternity.”

–MRK

(The entire commencement ceremony, including Dr. Ferguson’s remarks, can be viewed here.)

Etched in Our Hearts

mattmontgomeryThe following is a guest post by Matthew Montgomery, a senior Music Education major at Geneva College. Matt is a talented guitarist and vocalist with a passion for sharing the gospel through song. Last fall he led devotions for The Genevans choir and reflected on his introduction to psalm-singing through the college’s chapel program, the choir, and New Song (a smaller vocal ensemble). Matt’s story is a wonderful testimony to the long-term spiritual impact of singing the psalms.

This is my fourth year singing with The Genevans, and I’m all too aware that it’s my last year here at Geneva College. Right now, I want to talk to the underclassmen, but you veterans are welcome to listen too. Freshmen, I remember being in your shoes and being pretty confused about some things when I came to Geneva. Now, I grew up Presbyterian, but I had no idea what the Reformed Presbyterian Church was all about until I got to chapel here and realized that there were no instruments or hymns.

At first, I remember feeling like my right to express myself through worship was taken away with psalm-singing in chapel. How was I supposed to worship without the songs and instruments that I was used to? Well, I slowly got used to the whole a capella thing. And as strange as it seemed to me at first, I did appreciate that we were singing straight from God’s Word. However, part of me still missed the songs that I liked to sing.

The longer I’ve been here at Geneva and the longer I’ve sung the psalms with this group and with New Song, the more I’ve fallen in love with psalm singing. God gave us the gift of music for many reasons, but one of the most evident reasons in my own experience is that God gave us music to help etch his Word into our hearts. Think about it: we struggle to remember a simple list of terms for an exam, but we can remember every single word to our favorite song. When we sing the psalms, we are not only praising God by echoing back His holy inspired Word to the Author of creation, we are tucking those words into our hearts for when we may need them most. There have been times that I’ve been so struck down and defeated that I have no words of my own to even pray. It is in moments like this that the melody and words to Psalm 6 have echoed through my mind:

I am weary from my sighing,
And my bed dissolves in tears,
For my eye grows weak with sorrow,
My comfort disappears.

Return, O Lord,
Rescue my soul because of your lovingkindness.

Or the words of Dr. Byron Curtis’ setting of Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to thee;
Lord, my master, hear my voice.
And let thine ears attentive be
Unto my voice my crying plea.

I wait for the Lord, all my hope is in his mercy.

Michael’s Psalm 103 will forever be stuck in my head. Like Dr. Smith said yesterday, we will never be able to read that psalm without hearing the music in our head. That is a beautiful thing. This list of psalms that veteran Genevans know by heart could go on and on. Newbies, I encourage you to be mindful that you are not just learning and making memories during your time here at Geneva, you are equipping yourself with God’s Word which will guide and direct you for the rest of your life.

I urge you all, no matter what denomination you’re from or what style of worship you prefer, to be mindful of the incredible blessing it is to sing God’s praise and to be etching His word into your hearts and minds. I feel like a fool for ever thinking that my right to express myself through praise songs was being taken away, because the psalms are more expressive than any song that I could ever write. Every emotion or situation we find ourselves feeling or experiencing can point to a psalm. Don’t be as closed-minded as Freshman Matt.

I hope that when we all eventually leave this place, we would all have a better understanding of what it means to sing praises to God and to live a life of worship that stems only by being rooted in his Word.

–Matthew Montgomery

See Matt’s YouTube channel for some of his varied tastes and talents in music!


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